Vatican City has a train station but you cannot see it. You can, however, see the large gates within the papal state’s wall that enclose the train station and separate it from the main railway network in Italy.
There is one way to visit the train station and that’s to take a Vatican City-sponsored day trip from the station to the Pontifical Villages about 15 miles southeast of Rome. In 2022, the trips are offered on Saturdays through October 29 and cost about €43.
A proposal intended for visitors interested in taking part in a tour of the Vatican City and the Gardens of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo.
Every Saturday, a modern and comfortable electric train connects the historic Vatican City railway station with the Pontifical Villas for a Full Day visit that, starting with the wonders of the Vatican Museums and continuing through the Vatican Gardens, will lead the visitor to discover the Gardens of the Pontifical Villas.
Watch this video from The Round the World Guys – skip to 5:58 – for a view of the station and their ride to the villas. (I thought The Tim Traveller also made a video about the Vatican City railway station but I cannot find it on his YouTube channel.)
When I was in Rome this month – part of a longer trip to Rome, Florence, Lyon, Strasbourg, the Netherlands, and Germany – I wanted to see what I could see, so I walked south and west around the wall towards the San Pietro station. A street follows the southern wall; walk along this and you’ll come to an entry to a railroad viaduct. At this point, it’s at ground level, but to the left (south) the ground quickly slopes down several stories. The viaduct holds the branch from the main line and you can walk across it to San Pietro station.
If that’s too difficult to follow, go to the San Pietro station, go up to binario (platform) 1, and walk towards the large St. Peter’s Basilica you see to the right.
ChicagoCrashes dot org was, for many years, the only source for people to get information about traffic crashes in Chicago. I started it in 2011.
It was updated annually with data from two years ago, because of how the Illinois Department of Transportation processed the reports from all over the state. I shut it down because it had outdated code, I was maintaining it in my free time, and I didn’t want to update the code or spend all the time every year integrating the new data.
In 2015, the Chicago Police Department started testing an electronic crash reporting system in some districts that meant police officers could write reports and they would immediately show up in a public database (in the city’s data portal). The CPD expanded this to all districts in September 2017. (A big caveat to using the new dataset is that it has citywide data for only four and a half years.)
Since then, whenever someone asked me for crash data (mostly from John to illustrate Streetsblog Chicago articles), I would head to the data portal and grab data from just the block or intersection where someone had recently been injured or killed. I would load the traffic crash data into QGIS and visualize it. I found this also to be painstaking.
Now, with renewed attention on the common and unfixed causes of KSIs (“industry” term for killed or seriously injured) that we’re seeing repeatedly across Chicago – read about the contributing cause of Gerardo Marciales’s death – I decided to relaunch a version of Chicago Crash Browser.
The new version doesn’t have a name, because it’s part of the “Transportation Snapshot” in Chicago Cityscape, the real estate information platform I operate. It’s also behind a paywall, because that’s how Chicago Cityscape is built.
I wanted to make things a lot easier for myself this round and it comes with a lot of benefits:
Explore all crash reports in a given area, whether that’s one you draw yourself or predefined in the Cityscape database.
Quickly filter by crash type (bicyclist, pedestrian, etc.) and injury severity.
Download the data for further analysis.
How to access the Chicago Crash Browser
The crash data requires a Cityscape membership. I created a new tier of membership that cannot be signed up – I must grant it to you. It will give you access only to Transportation Snapshots.
Mention or DM me on Twitter, @stevevance, saying you’d like access to the crash data. Tell me what your email you used to create an account on Chicago Cityscape.
I’ll modify your membership to give you access to the “transportation tier” and tell you to sign out and sign back in to activate it.
Once you’re in, this video shows you how to draw a “Personal Place” and explore the traffic crash data there. Text instructions are below.
From the Chicago Cityscape homepage, click on “Maps” in the menu bar and then click “Draw your own map”.
On the “Personal Place” page that appears with a large map, decide which shape you’d like to draw: a circle with a radius that you specify (good for intersections), a square or rectangle (good for street blocks), or an arbitrary polygon (good for winding streets in parks). Click the shape and draw it according to the onscreen instructions. For intersections I recommend making the circle 150 feet for small intersections and 200 feet for long intersections; this is because intersections have an effect on driving beyond the box.
Once you’ve completed drawing the shape, a popup window appears with the button to “view & save this Personal Place”. Click that button and a new browser tab will open with something called a “Place Snapshot”.
In the Place Snapshot enter a name for your Personal Place and click the “Save” button.
Scroll down and, under the “Additional Snapshots” heading, click the link for “Transportation & Jobs Snapshot”; a new browser tab will open.
In Transportation Snapshot, scroll down and look for “Traffic crashes”. You’ve made it to the new Chicago Crash Browser.
This blog post was inspired by Steven Lucy’s comments on Twitter about three different “regional rail” networks.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced in her State of the State speech the other day that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a state authority that operates New York City’s transit, would do a feasibility study for the “The Triboro” (or “Interborough Express”).
The line would use existing freight railroad rights of way to connect Queens and Brooklyn (ironically there isn’t a third borough connection).
Transit Twitter has been abuzz, as reusing infrastructure is a really good idea!
John Surico, a professor in New York City, tweeted, “Wonder if NYC is about to have its London Overground moment. An overlooked transit project using freight lines, ended up being way more popular than expected. Since led to new routes, changed where Londoners saw themselves living, and connected otherwise disconnected locales.”
Steven Lucy, a business owner in Chicago, said in response, “Everyone says ‘Chicago RER’ or ‘Chicago S-Bahn’ but I think Chicago is ripe for a London-style Chicago Overground.”
I think all three – RER, S-Bahn, and London Overground – can be grouped as “regional rail”, which constitutes passenger trains running between center cities and their suburbs, stopping at the major stations and a few key stations in the cities, at frequencies higher than commuter and intercity rail and lower than rapid transit.
Regional rail is not quite a walk-up-and-board service, but it’s better than having the hourly or every other hour off-peak service that most United States cities with passenger trains endure.
What are they?
Someone asked Lucy, “What’s the difference between those three?”
Lucy: “My view: they all kind of operate similar service but have different histories.”
I’ll summarize those, and show some of my photos since I’ve ridden and experienced all three types of regional rail.
Lucy: “Most S-Bahn systems share tracks and stations with long-distance trains (Berlin huge exception) and mainly serve one corridor in city center with branches to burbs.”
The “S-Bahn” branding, in particular, is used only in German-speaking countries, while in Denmark you’ll find the S-tog. The Wikipedia article for S-train reports a few other networks with similar branding.
S-Bahn trains typically use the same fare structure as the metros (rapid transit) they intersect with. And, in Germany, most S-Bahn trains look the same! Berlin is a major exception, and there are also some smaller networks with unique liveries. German regional transit is owned by cross-state cooperative transit agencies called “zweckverband” (a singular word there) who can operate lines themselves or contract them to other operators, and often S-Bahn services are contracted to DB, the federally-owned railway corporation.
Lucy: “RER was built from scratch post-war, mostly underground in city, to relieve both metro lines and traditional commuter rail.”
When used without qualifiers, RER means “Réseau Express Régional” in French, for Regional Express Network, and the term refers to the hybrid system used in Île-de-France, the region that includes Paris and its suburbs. Many of the lines are interlined, meaning they share routes and stop at some of the same stations. That means that some stations will have high-frequency service and appear to have a “walk up and go” function, but not all trains stopping there are going to the same place.
The acronym works great in English, though –Regional Express Rail – and it’s being used in Toronto to denote a project to increase frequencies on the GO Transit commuter rail lines.
To call something that’s not in Paris “an RER” would mean that a transit authority is increasing the frequencies and service hours (later runs) of a commuter line and adjusting the fare structure to make it usable for more people.
The goal is to build a transit system that supports non-work trips at any time of the day for everyone; rather than weekday rush hour commuters that many regional trains in the United States (cough Metra cough) serve.
It’s debatable whether the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), Metro North Railroad (MNR), and New Jersey Transit (NJT) in the New York City metropolitan area are a type of “RER”. There are some periods in their schedules, outside of peak periods, when there is better than hourly service, but the two systems do not have fare integration with buses, PATH subways, or NYC Subway, adding a barrier to people using the complete network.
Lucy: “Overground took over some underused / disused lines and is kind of a lower-capacity mesh to the complement the Underground, mainly non-radial trips.”
On the Transport for London map, all Overground lines share the same hue of orange, and are identified by their geographic names. S-Bahn lines are typically called “Sx” where “x” is a number, and the five RER lines are letters A through E.
I think it’s neat that the London Overground runs on original embankments between buildings in the city, making its presence very visible, much like the stations on Chicago’s four-track North Side Main Line (all of the Red, Brown, and Purple Line stations north of North Avenue).
One thing that several people noted in the various branches of conversations on Twitter were the effect on land use and development after the London Overground lines opened. I don’t know the details, but some said it accelerated gentrification.
In Chicago, I don’t think converting Metra to an RER system would accelerate gentrification across the system because the current characteristics that inhibit or mitigate gentrification in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods (one of that characteristics is Chicago’s segregation and aldermanic privilege situation, which is better described by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance).
The situation would be a little different if Metra added new stations or restored historic stations, as stations change market and neighborhood development fundamentals. For example, there used to be a station (with trains from Metra’s BNSF predecessor) two blocks from where I live in Little Village. The station area is now John G. Shedd Park.
Metra’s current leadership has indicated their desire to increase service frequency, but remains opposed to electrification (a key change to increase service frequency and operational efficiency and reducing costs) and has not indicated a desire to revamp their operations “style”.
It’s always been clear that the dollar figures in Mayor Lightfoot’s administration’s INVEST South/West talking points was a combination of existing city-funded projects and future projects to be funded by city and non-city funded sources.
Now I have a better idea of where the non-city funding comes from.
$300 million in the RFP projects in the ISW corridors (mostly mixed-use with an affordable housing component)
And $575 million in “corporate and philanthropic commitments”
It’s the last funding source, of “corporate and philanthropic commitments”, that I was most interested in, so I asked the Chicago Department of Planning & Development to break that down. The breakdown follows:
Over $200 million in commitments towards housing and small business support from Community Investment Corporation (CIC) and JP Morgan Chase
~$95 million in project costs for Amazon distribution centers in Humboldt Park and Pullman
~$33 million in investment towards the new Southside Discover (the credit card company) call center
$20 million commitment by Fifth Third Bank towards the South Chicago community
$20 million from Fifth Third Bank for opportunity zone investments in ISW neighborhoods
$12.25 million towards the Reclaiming Chicago housing initiative in North Lawndale
$10 million from Pritzker Traubert for the Chicago Prize winner on the Auburn Gresham corridor
Over $2 million for the Pre-Development Fund launched by the Chicago Community Trust for minority developers involved in ISW RFPs or Chicago Prize finalists
The house is one block away from the Kedzie Green Line station, which offers a 20-minute ride to downtown or to Oak Park. Behind the station is The Hatchery, a major shared commercial kitchen and food business incubator.
The Cook County Land Bank Authority owns several properties on the block and is marketing these to developers for new housing.
I’ve already had a few GCs walk through the house and tell me they’re going to submit a bid. I found them either by asking architects I know, and by scouring the Building Permits Browser on Chicago Cityscape.
I filtered the permits, looking for “renovation/alteration”, set the estimated project cost from $100,000 to $400,000, and then skimmed the project descriptions for words like “two-flat” and “rehab”.
I made a list of those contractors and found their phone numbers and emails elsewhere (the city used to include their phone numbers in the building permits dataset, and took it out in 2019 or 2020).
The Illinois General Assembly and Governor Pritzker just gave community college districts in Illinois the authority to work with local housing authorities to develop affordable housing. The bill, HB0374, takes effect January 1, 2022. The text is very short (see the screenshot below or read the bill).
What does this mean for community college districts? It probably means that they can lease their land to the local housing authority for that local housing authority to develop affordable housing for the community college’s students and their families.
The land is essentially free, since it’s already owned by the community college districts and it’s not taxed. Plus, community college districts have their own taxing authority (subject to caps) that can be used to pay for bond-based debt.
Three opportunities in Chicago
I’m going to point out three community college locations in Chicago that could be great places for new and affordable student housing to be built.
Malcolm X College
Across from the New Malcolm X college was the original Malcolm X college, and now it’s a huge vacant lot. The Community Colleges of Chicago sold it in 2016 to the City of Chicago, which sold it in 2017 to Rush University Hospital System (which is across the Eisenhower Expressway to the south).
Welp, Rush also wants to build housing – for unhoused people who use emergency rooms as a way to live and be housed. (People’s health dramatically improves when they have permanent housing and hospitals spend less money on treating them in expensive-to-operate ERs.) Rush and the Chicago Housing Authority could develop housing for both populations – the chronically sick and students – using funds combined with the Chicago community college district.
Additionally, the Jackson bus takes people to and from downtown, and the Blue Line has a station at Illinois Medical District a block away.
The Humboldt Park Vocational Education Center, which is operated by the Wilbur Wright community college, is another prime location for student housing. The center has a huge parking lot and lies along the California Avenue and North Avenue bus routes.
Parking lots love to be turned into homes, especially in gentrifying areas. That’s free land in a high-demand area where rent is north of $1,200 for a 1-bedroom apartment (I’m using HUD’s Fair Market Rent for the 60647 ZIP code).
Dawson Technical Institute
Then there’s Dawson Technical Institute in Bronzeville, which is about 2 blocks from the Indiana Green Line station and several east-west and north-south bus routes.
Dawson teaches construction trades, which is perfect because the Green Line can take students to internships and jobs at all of the new construction in Fulton Market that’s ongoing and going to continue for the next three years (at a minimum).
What other good affordable student housing construction opportunities do community colleges in Illinois have?
Of the many things Metra does to discourage ridership, here’s a new one to me: You go up to the platform towards your destination and there’s a sign that says “your train might actually stop at the other platform, which is entered from the other side of the street”.
I was with two friends and we were planning to board a Metra UP-West train to Geneva, Illinois, to start a bike ride on the Fox River Trail.
What the sign actually says, as you can see in the photo, is “Notice! Some trains from Chicago board from opposite platform”, but I think my interpretation is accurate.
We brought our bikes up to the platform that was labeled “trains from Chicago”, which Metra has labeled “Platform 2”. Union Pacific, which runs their freight trains and operates Metra’s trains, is a left-running railroad in Chicago, meaning trains run on the left track in the direction of travel.
A minute after we settled in to wait 10 minutes for the train, we noticed the sign. A freight train started down this track, and we’re wondering, “is this freight train the clearest indication that we should head now to the other platform?”
We even tried to deduce which track the outbound train would run on by watching signals (one will eventually turn green).
When it looked like the freight train wasn’t gonna clear the track in time, we moved to the other platform. It’s good we did. About 1 or 2 minutes before the train arrived, an announcement confirmed our choice of platforms. Phew!
What made this maneuver of ours between platforms complicated was that we had bikes and it takes an extra moment to carry them down and back up stairs.
While the Metra approached and started slowing down, there was just the slightest fear it wasn’t actually going to stop. The train had more coaches than necessary for the demand and only the last car opened. So you watch like 7 coaches pass by.
This being the Kedzie station on UP-West, we were probably three of 10 riders here this whole week. In the current schedule, only 41 percent of the weekday trains stop here.
The announcement of the boarding platform was hard to hear over the freight train noise, the platform identification sign for “Platform 1” – the middle platform – took a moment to see and verify. But, and here’s the clincher to this part of the story, the announcement didn’t come with enough slack for us to have “run” over to the correct platform – with our bikes – and not feel stressed about what should be a seamless ride-up-to-the-platform-and-board start to the trip.
Photo from “Platform 1” (a center platform) with our arriving Metra train on the left and the freight train that ended up stopping in front of the original platform we ascended.
We took the last outbound train of the morning that stops at Kedzie to Geneva. Then we biked south on the beautiful Fox River Trail to Aurora. We missed the train and didn’t want to wait 2 hours (😬) for the next one so we biked northeast to Wheaton along the Illinois Prairie Path’s Aurora Branch and made it on that inbound train just in time to go home.
We saw a new piece of “regional” infrastructure on our trip, a new pedestrian and bike bridge over the Fox River in Aurora, Illinois. The verdict on their brand new pedestrian & bike bridge is…it’s very cool. I wish it had greenery, though.
The bridge is characterized by a large, central, vertical concrete beam that provides the structural spans. At the ends of the bridge, the beam separates the walking and biking paths, but at the center the decks rise up while the beam appears to drop down and there’s an open and combined deck at the center. The deck is also widened at the center so that there’s some gathering space outside of the paths of travel.
Visiting the Fox River Trolley Museum is a fun day trip for anyone who likes Chicago train history or trolleys and streetcars generally. The FRTM is free to browse, and rides cost $5 each or pay $8 for unlimited rides (adult prices).
The museum is not accessible to people with disabilities. It’s open Sundays from May to October and some holidays (check their calendar). The museum has two portable restrooms, but I recommend using the permanent and spacious ones in County Park.
Trip option 1, the short and direct option: Take Metra’s MD-West line to National Street and bike 15 minutes south along the Fox River Trail. The trail passes County Park, where there’s a playground, restrooms, and bike parking. Lock your bike here and walk on the gravel path from the park to the outdoor museum.
Trip option 2a, the really convenient option: Have a friend who loves planning multi-modal bike trips dig into the Metra schedules and send calendar invitations to everyone in the group so there’s great expectations as to when and where the trip starts and ends. Thank you, D.S.!
Trip option 2b, the longer one that incorporates more cycling: Take Metra’s BNSF line to Aurora Transportation Center (ATC). The BNSF line has Metra’s new bike cars on specific runs (check the schedules). This is important because it means you can bike with a larger group of people than before since your group’s size is less subject to capacity constraints for bikes on standard Metra trains – without bike cars – and unpredictable directions from Metra conductors. Additionally, on standard Metra trains, the posted bike capacity may be inaccurate if the conductors have not opened all of the coaches.
After disembarking at the ATC, ride to the north side of the center towards the river and use the signalized intersection to cross the high-speed road to the Fox River Trail. From here on out you’ll be following the FRT northward via its off-street and on-street sections. The trail is mostly off-street, so that’s fun, and it’s nice to have so much shade.
You can basically just bike north and follow the FRT signs but you may want to review a trail map ahead of time because it’s often possible to bike on either side of the Fox River and there are advantages to riding on one side over the other in some segments. For example, from downtown Batavia north to Fabyan Villa, I prefer the west side. At Fabyan Villa you’ll have to switch to the east side.
From Aurora, look for FRT direction signs that say “Batavia”, and then “Geneva”, and then “St. Charles”, and finally “South Elgin”. I believe the only option for cycling through downtown St. Charles is on-street, and there are some hills on its FRT street sections so be prepared or look for an alternative route.
This is as good a point as any to mention that you could shorten the bike trip by taking Metra’s UP-West line to Geneva, which is north of Aurora, and heading on downhill streets to the riverfront and crossing the pedestrian bridge underneath the Metra tracks to join the Fox River Trail on the east side to head north.
My two friends and I ate at Flagship on the Fox, an American restaurant and pub with seating indoors, on a covered patio, and outdoors. The Flagship Burger, with onion rings, avocado, bacon, and white cheddar cheese was delicious. Next door is Pollyanna Brewing Company, but which doesn’t sell food.
A lot of the FRT follows the old Aurora, Elgin and Fox River electric railway line! Can you believe that there used to be interurban trains running up and down the Fox River connecting the towns there (which I mentioned above)?
The Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric was an interurban offering both freight and passenger service between Yorkville and Carpenter, Illinois. Operations began as early as 1895 and closely followed the Fox River for its entire route. It underwent several mergers and names over its lifetime before eventually becoming 40 miles in length and operating two streetcar services in Aurora and Elgin.
As with most interurbans, the AE&FR was overtaken by buses and the automobile, and passenger service was discontinued in 1935. Freight service continued along portions of the route up until 1972.
The AE&FR ran on the Fox River’s west bank from Aurora to St. Charles, where it switched to the east bank. On approach to South Elgin, however, and due to a big bend in the Fox River, it kept going straight and found itself on the west bank again.
A minute or two after crossing the bend in the Fox River on the former interurban’s bridge, you’ll encounter the southern end of the Fox River Trolley Museum’s demonstration track. Less than 10 minutes later and you’ll be arriving at County Park where I recommend parking your bike.
What’s the timing on this? I don’t know. My friends and I took our time cycling and stopping for photos and eating. The relaxed riding nearly prevented us from being able to ride a trolley. The museum runs a trolley once an hour every hour, and we arrived a few minutes after the most recent trolley left the station. We needed to be in Elgin to ride Metra’s MD-West line back to Chicago at 15:55, and the next full ride would take so long that we would miss that train, and since it’s Sunday, it’s safe to assume that the next Metra train runs two hours later.
The volunteer staff at the museum were sympathetic to our case and created a special charter for just the three of us! The two operators and an apprentice took us on a shortened journey down the line, from Castlemuir (the home station) to a switching yard of sorts halfway down the line. The yard is where trains could be rerouted to a track that joined up with former Illinois Central tracks going east-west.
We rode the former North Shore Line car 715. This car used to run between Chicago and several cities along the North Shore, including Evanston and Willmette (where the Chicago Transit Authority’s Purple Line runs now), Skokie (where the CTA’s Yellow Line runs), and further north to Milwaukee. Check out the North Shore Line’s route map on the Northwestern University Transportation Library’s website.
You would have also seen car 715 running around the Chicago elevated loop, and making stops at the existing Belmont and Wilson elevated stations (although both of those have been replaced and tracks re-aligned for slightly faster service).
Once you’re done enjoying the historic trains at the FRTM, get back on the Metra and go home. Check out Elgin’s riverfront if you have to wait, and there are restaurants in downtown Elgin.
After the bill drama with Peoples Gas last year, in which I was billed a $50 “base” fee per unit per month for the privilege of having a gas line to my house, I decided to make the gut rehab of my two flat all electric. I think that making an all electric house is easy, but it takes a lot of research to know what that means and how to select materials and appliances.
I have several reasons for keeping natural gas out of my house:
Natural gas has point source emissions causing indoor air pollution that need to be vented and evacuated properly (gas stovetops emit methane into your kitchen, so turn on your hood that hopefully vents to the outside)
The price of natural gas is not falling as fast as electricity is falling
Electricity is more and more likely to come from renewable sources, especially in Illinois because of our state policies that require ComEd and Ameren to buy more and more power from renewable sources
A future photovoltaic solar panel array could be integrated and some of the electricity in the house would come from its own generator
Without gas pipes in the house, there is less infrastructure to build and maintain
Climate change is continuing to make life harder for the world’s inhabitants and electrical heating & cooling causes less fossil fuel emissions (“An electrified home uses 8,333 more kWh annually than a gas (or propane) home but displaces 96 million BTU of fossil fuel use.”Elevate+Rocky Mountain Institute study)
There are still some downsides to having an all electric house, namely when the power goes out on the block then nothing in the house will turn on. There are solutions, for this, though, including integrating a battery pack or using a fossil fuel-powered generator with its own tank.
The Passivhaus-certified single-family house in Hyde Park that I toured in 2018 has a small natural gas-powered generator in the rear yard, fueled by a typical Peoples Gas supply line.
What does it mean to have an electric house?
I think there are three categories of choices that one makes, about visible appliances, invisible appliances, and heating & cooling.
A visible appliance is one you use directly and frequently, like an oven and a clothes dryer. These are essentially the only two appliances that have gas and electric versions and electric versions are just as commonly available as gas version.
An invisible appliance is one that’s in a closet or in the basement, like a water heater. Most people I know have a gas-powered water heater (usually a tank, not tankless), and there are two kinds of electric water heaters (which I detailed in Two-flat journal 3). Again, these are very common and electric water heaters (standard with resistance heating, tankless, and hybrid heat pump) can be picked up anywhere a gas-powered water heat can be purchased.
Think of a heat pump as a “reversible air conditioner”: an air conditioner removes heat in the air of a space and puts it outside, while a heat pump “removes” the heat in the air of the outside and puts it inside.
Heating & cooling is the complicated category of the three. A typical new construction house or condo has gas forced air for heating, a condenser for air conditioning, and the air is pushed through the house via ducts. In the electric universe, however, mini splits/air source heat pumps have been around for 40 years and are extremely efficient at both heating and cooling. In cold climate region 5, where Chicago is, air source heat pump manufacturers have additional products to deal with the extreme cold temperatures.
Going electric in the heating and cooling category is the only one that necessitates deeper research on windows, wall assembly, and insulation to go beyond the basic energy efficiency code (Illinois Energy Conservation Code 2018). While the air source heat pump is efficient (some have a coefficient of performance, COP, of 3-4, meaning it transfers three to four times as much heat energy to the house as the energy they consume) it will work very hard to keep a house warm during negative temperature days (F°) and thus it’s important to have a well-sealed house so the conditioned air you’re paying for doesn’t escape.
If you want your house to be all electric, a lot of these choices can be made over time. For example, you can stop the air pollution by buying a range with an induction cooktop, which is extremely efficient, safe for households with children, and very easy to clean. I like to cook soup in my Dutch oven (which is compatible with induction cooktop) and I would rather not have to have the burner on for an hour, accompanied by a noisy vent fan.
Financial benefits of an all electric house
In addition to certain federal tax credits for replacing certain appliances, which you can claim when you file your tax return, there are often local incentives. ComEd has a new Electric Homes program that offers $4,000 cash (to the builder or general contractor) for an electric house (new construction or renovation) that meets their requirements. (2021 is the second year in operation, and there’s no guarantee it will operate next year.)
From ComEd’s marketing:
Building your clients’ dream homes – why not make them energy efficient?
ComEd provides a $2,000 incentive per home for electric homes new construction! All-electric home construction can sound daunting at first, but with the knowledge and help of ComEd, you too can benefit from tight envelope, all-electric HVAC, heat pump water heating, lighting and appliances. Construction of single-family homes, duplexes, townhomes, and 2-4 flats are eligible.
Make the jump to high-quality, next-generation, electric homes. Reduce energy bills while providing superior comfort. Prepare for a clean, resilient energy future.
Learn about additional clean energy strategies like solar power, electric vehicle charging, smart homes and induction cooking.
I’ve done a lot of research on appliances in all three categories because my architect needs to know exactly which appliances I’m selecting so the kitchen, utility closet, basement, and other spaces can be designed to fit them. Thankfully, a lot of appliances have similar dimensions so it’s easy to match the available space with the catalog of laundry machines, refrigerators, etc.
There are two main attributes to watch for when selecting electric appliances: the yellow Energy Guide label that estimates the annual cost of operating the appliance, and whether it has Energy Star certification. One of the ComEd Electric Homes requirement is that every appliance that can be Energy Star certified is – I’ve found that there are no certified ranges.
Frigidaire FCRE3052AB ($629) – Not Energy Star certified, not induction
Frigidaire GCRI3058SS ($1,169) – Not Energy Star certified, yes induction
Water heater. Something to know about tankless is that it’s not necessary to have a single tankless source for the whole house, as it’s possible to have multiple tankless water heaters at each water source, sized to the need – the kitchen sink can have one, and the shower and the lavatory can share another. The hybrid heat pump water heater currently has a 10% federal tax credit, up to $300.
Rheem brand’s “Performance Platinum 40 Gal. 10-Year Hybrid High Efficiency Smart Tank Electric Water Heater” (Home Depot)
Each dwelling unit will have the same water heater but may not have the same kitchen and laundry appliances.
Clothes washer. Stacked, to save space, from (each is about $800):
Mini split systems have two parts: An outdoor condensing unit and one or more indoor fan units. They’re connected by a refrigerant line, an outgoing condensation line, and electricity from the outdoor unit to the indoor units that is routed through a small diameter (3″) hole in the exterior wall.
There are several options for indoor units: Wall-mounted, ceiling mounted cassette, ceiling mounted box, and ducted (the outdoor unit will provide the hot or cold refrigerant and the ducted unit will blow air through a duct network). My architect and I have selected two ceiling-mounted cassettes per dwelling unit; these fit within the 16″ between joists and avoids the protrusion of wall-mounted units.
Outdoor unit, Mitsubishi MXZ-3C30NAHZ2 (Ecomfort, $3,365 x2)
Ceiling cassette indoor unit, Mitsubishi MLZ-KP09NA (Ecomfort, $895 x4)
I will need a venting system to exchange fresh air into each dwelling unit, without relying on the typical situation where the leakiness of houses brings in fresh air. An energy efficient way to do this is to use an “energy recovery ventilator” (ERV) that transfers the heat or chill of outgoing conditioned air to incoming fresh air to reduce the amount of energy that the heat pump would expend to warm or chill the incoming air.
Oh, one more thing, the electrical panels in the basement will need to be replaced (which is part of the replacement of the entire electrical system), and ComEd will likely need to string higher-amperage lines from the alley overhead power lines to the house. This area requires more research and possible a conversation with an electrical contractor or ComEd. I’m currently assuming that I can specify that the electrical contractor will handle this with ComEd.
Updated May 3, 2021, to add more insight from Robinson Meyer (The Atlantic) as to why lumber prices are so high.
My architect and I are still working on plans, slowly but surely. Read my previous entry, Two-flat journal #4, to understand why that seems to be taking awhile.
There is something else on my mind as we work toward the goal of a gut-rehabbed two-flat: How much this whole project is going to cost.
I’ve talked to several contractors, engaged a structural engineer to specify and design the new steel beam in the basement, and obtained quotes for all new windows from four manufacturers.
One contractor happily gave me an estimate, based on incomplete plans, that was about $220,000. That price could go down with more specific plans and instructions, as the estimate had variability based on unknowns, and it doesn’t include the cost of purchasing the windows. More likely, I think the price will go up due to material costs.
How much windows might cost
All window quotes I’ve obtained include installation by the manufacturer’s selected installers, which has a benefit from some companies, mainly that the maker will guarantee the installation for a period of time.
I would share the quotes with you but I don’t think they would be very helpful at this point because I haven’t evaluated each of the quotes on the quality of the window. For example, one of the window quotes was three times higher than the next highest quote, but the maker guarantees installation for 10 years and is a higher-quality window. But what is the factor of difference in quality, is it three times? And how valuable is a 10-year installation warranty? It’s unlikely I would need to avail that benefit and the three times difference in price means I could replace all of the windows *again* two times for the same price! (Assuming prices didn’t increase between now and that future moment.)
The 15 new windows, according to the four quotes, will cost anywhere from $12,000 to $46,000. I should mention that the highest quote doesn’t include any discounts or special offers, as those will be offered once I re-engage the estimator and ask for one.
There are a couple of opportunities to reduce window costs. I could convert more of the casement windows to be double hung windows (which I don’t want to do as I prefer single hung windows), or I could change the window opening size. A couple of the window openings are taller than most of the window makers have in their standard window design, so an upper transom (fixed) window would be required. However, changing the window opening size may end up shifting costs to a different plan of adding bricks and adjusting walls.
Another way to reduce the window cost would be to use models that are less energy efficient, but I also don’t want to do that. I’ve insisted that every window be Energy Star certified – this is about the only certification standard that I understand, and it’s common across most window makers in the Chicago area. (There are also Passive House and Passivhaus certified windows, and companies that import higher-quality and more efficient windows from European manufacturers, but I haven’t bothered with any of those because I assume the prices will be even higher.)
Lumber and other construction materials
That lumber prices have more than doubled over prices a year ago is well known if you read real estate industry news media, or if you’ve shopped for wood at Menards to build a couple of benches for some nicer outdoor space or installed a new porch.
My gut rehab will require a lot of plywood (to replace the subfloor), “soft lumber” replacement studs, and some replacement joists.
The St. Louis Federal Reserve maintains “FRED”, an amazing website with interactive charts to explore economics statistics, including lumber. The pricing information comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and their Producer Price Indexes.
The chart for the plywood price index below shows very stable pricing in fall and winter 2019-2020, and then in May 2020 prices start climbing and the index increased by 100 points to March 2021.
BLS has monthly detailed reports so you can find data about more than the products FRED has charts for. Let’s dig in to the March 2021 report (indexes mean that the pricing represents percentage changes based on 100% being the price when the index was established):
“Softwood dressed 2-inch lumber, 2 inches in nominal thickness only, not edge worked” (a.k.a. 2×4 studs) (index established June 2012):
March 2020: 205.1
March 2021: 324.1 (this means that the price has increased by 119% year over year, a more than doubling of price)
“Softwood plywood products: rough, sanded, and specialties” (index established December 2011):
March 2020: 139.0
March 2021: 242.9 (again, this means that the price has increased by 103.9%, doubling the price)
In addition to general demand being much higher, there are other reasons why lumber costs so much more right now, according to Robinson Meyer writing in The Atlantic last week.
Since 2018, a one-two punch of environmental harms worsened by climate change has devastated the lumber industry in Canada, the largest lumber exporter to the United States. A catastrophic and multi-decade outbreak of bark-eating beetles, followed by a series of historic wildfire seasons, have led to lasting economic damage in British Columbia, a crucial lumber-providing province. Americans have, in effect, made a mad dash for lumber at the exact moment Canada is least able to supply it.
“There are people who say, ‘Climate change isn’t affecting me,’” Janice Cooke, a forest-industry veteran and biology professor at the University of Alberta, told me. “But they’re going to go to the hardware store and say, ‘Holy cow, the price of lumber has gone up.’”
It has lost 2.5 billion board feet of annual production capacity since 2019, enough to shift prices in a North American market of 70 billion annual board feet, Jalbert said.
Read Robinson’s full article to see how the bark-eating beetles overwhelmed the forests of British Columbia and the northern forest belt in Canada and why their rampage is fueled by climate change.
The same contractor, when they checked in with me recently, said that the prices of other construction materials had gone up, too.
In the same Producer Price Index report, it looks like wood doors and door frames went up 29.2% from March 2020 to March 2021; metal windows are up 7.1%, double hung wood windows are up 6.8% and wood casement windows are up 5.1%; wood moldings are up 16.9%.
I didn’t see any notable price increases in plumbing materials or kitchen cabinets – all were close to inflation. The PPI doesn’t have vinyl window products, or I don’t know under which category it falls.